Juke Joint: Dave Chappelle’s gift to Yellow Springs
- Published: June 14, 2018
“Musically speaking, the Jook is the most important place in America,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in 1934. “For in its smelly, shoddy confines has been born the secular music known as blues, and on blues has been founded jazz.”
The list of genres tracing their roots to the historic Jook — or Juke — Joint would now include rock ’n’ roll, soul, R&B, funk and hip-hop. And in a barn outside of Yellow Springs on Memorial Day weekend, a modern Juke Joint celebrated this lineage and the legacy of African-American music.
For the third time, comedian and local resident Dave Chappelle threw a star-studded barn party in the village. The Juke Joint, as curated by Chappelle, is a night of copious covers, musical improvisation, surprise guest stars and hot and sweaty dancing.
In interviews this week, attendees shared peak moments and told of frustrating ticketing glitches. Most expressed gratitude for Chappelle’s local offering.
“It was a gift,” said Sarah Buffy, who traveled from Cincinnati for Monday’s concert. “[Chappelle] opened with gratitude for his hometown. It was so beautiful and heartfelt.”
“Why Not Ohio?” Chappelle asked audience members from behind the DJ booth at the start of both nights. Though Chappelle has organized Juke Joints in London, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities, he keeps bringing it back to the place he started it, in 2015 — Yellow Springs.
“Dave does this really because he wants to share this experience with his hometown,” said Chappelle’s publicist and Juke Joint event producer, Carla Sims, this week. “The idea of bringing this caliber of talent into a market they would not otherwise touch is what really brings a lot of joy to him.”
A barn dating from the 1920s at the historic Whitehall Farm provided the requisite “shoddy confines,” even though it was decked out with professional lighting and surrounded by pristine rows of young corn. Historically, juke joints popped up in the South after Reconstruction as informal places of music, dancing and drinking by and for African Americans barred from other establishments due to Jim Crow segregation.
Blending the improvisation of jazz with the potent rhymes of hip-hop and soaring soulful vocals of R&B, Chappelle’s Juke Joint is a kind of remix of a century of black music and the other popular music it influenced. It is at once a shout-out to the originators and a call to the next generation to create anew in spur-of-the-moment solos.
Stevie Wonder’s one-time backup band, The Band with No Name, led by harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet, held down the stage both nights, playing for more than four hours until after 2 a.m. and mixing planned with completely improvised pieces.
Cycling in to sing or rap with the The Band with No Name were a slew of prominent old school ’90s and 2000s hip-hop and R&B musicians: Jarobi White, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest; R&B and neo-soul singer-songwriter Jill Scott; underground hip-hop artist Pharoache Monch; Taleb Kweli, one half of the hip-hop duo Black Star; Martin Luther, who starred in the Beatles musical, “Across the Universe;” Doug E. Fresh, the “Human Beat Box;” Wayna, an R&B and soul singer; Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall; Cincinnati producer Hi-Tek; DJ Cipha Sounds; and DJ D-Nice, aka Derrick Jones, who began his hip-hop career in the mid-1980s with the group Boogie Down Productions.
Rounding out the celebrities in attendance were comedians Amy Schumer, Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings and Hollywood film and television producer Stan Lathan.
Then there was Chappelle himself, who has managed to pick up both an Emmy and Grammy in the last year for his stand-up comedy, but who many locals just know as “Dave.” Chappelle, the son of the late Bill Chappelle, who was on the music faculty at Antioch College, spent time in Yellow Springs in his youth. His mother, Yvonne Seon, lives in town. He lives with his family in a home just outside the village.
The mystery surrounding the Juke Joint lineup adds to the excitement, according to Paul Herzog, who attended both nights. Rumors flew that anyone from Stevie Wonder to Lauryn Hill might show up, which may have led to “out of whack expectations” among some attendees, in Herzog’s words.
But the moment nationally known singer Jill Scott walked onto the stage unexpectedly on Sunday night was amazing in its own right, Herzog said, and was a highlight of the weekend.
Scott’s appearance on Sunday night was a happy surprise to many, and her eagerly hoped for return on Monday was met with equal delight. The Philadelphia native is a respected singer-songwriter, having risen to fame on an 1999 collaboration with The Roots, “You Got Me” a Grammy Award-winning song she co-composed, and with her debut album the following year.
When Scott laid down a spoken word and song rendition of the national anthem on Memorial Day, the audience stood rapt. Questioning whether America is really the “land of the free,” Scott said it’s “home of the brave slave.” She went on to clarify that slaves built the country and that the legacy of slavery is still the source of inequality. From the audience, Luna Malbroux of San Francisco was moved.
“Her freestyle was a reminder that what we are experiencing today is a result of slave labor and that we can’t forget that the inequality of this country is even in the clothes we wear — the cotton,” Malbroux said, referencing a poignant section of Scott’s piece.
For Rebecca Kuder, who attended Sunday night, Scott had “goddess energy”
and “time seemed to slow down” when she was on the stage.
Another attendee related his experience during her performance: “It’s like she’s singing straight to my soul,” he said.
Other attendees pointed to the songs, sing-a-longs and monologues that were memorable to them — a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that had the whole barn jumping, a moving Sly and the Family Stone medley of “Everyday People” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” Chappelle’s heartfelt tribute to Prince, complete with a purple light that bathed the barn, Yonnet’s “mind-blowing” harmonica solos, and the Mavis Staples’ “I’ll Take You There” as the Monday night opener.
Coaxed on by their fellow musicians and buoyed by the audience’s cheers, each musician on stage had his or her own chance to solo, to shine. The crowd was treated to solos on saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass, keyboard, and of course, verses and vocals. In fact, the art of jamming is central to the Juke Joint, according to Sims.
“That musical exchange, the back-and-forth, is an important part of it,” Sims said. “A lot of it is very spontaneous.”
The ban on smartphones at the Juke Joint aids an atmosphere of improvisation, according to Sims. The policy allows the performers to take more risks, knowing that if they make a mistake it won’t be captured and circulated, Sims said.
“It gives Dave and the other performers a chance to be more experimental,” she said. “It allows them to jam and get out of their comfort zone.”
Many attendees mentioned the smartphone ban as contributing to a good time, especially because they wouldn’t have to crane their neck to see the stage with a phone held up in front of them.
“Other than trying to figure out what time it was, you didn’t miss it,” said one attendee, who preferred to remain anonymous, of his phone. “It was a neat thing — you just felt in place.” In Buffy’s words, “people were present to honor the art.”
Sims said that Chappelle uses the same phone policy for his comedy shows in order to protect his original material, and that it’s a important piece of the Juke Joint experience.
“People are engaged — no one is on their phones trying to get a piece,” Sims said. “Dave wants people to be in the moment.”
Audience members also spoke of the connection afforded by both the lack of phones and spirit of the scene in general. “I felt like part of a great community,” Jason Scott wrote in a message.
“Everyone there you almost feel connected with — it’s not like going to a Reds’ game,” said an anonymous attendee.
“It seemed to me to be what a family reunion would be like if you liked everyone in your family and they had world-class musicians at the picnic,” Gilah Pomeranz Anderson wrote in a message.
The Juke Joint’s origins can be traced to a chance event in Austin, Texas, when Chappelle hosted an impromptu gig with Yonnet at which Stevie Wonder showed up.
“The whole night was just magic,” Sims recalled. According to Sims, Chappelle reflected that they had captured lightning in a bottle and told Sims he wanted to throw a similar party in Yellow Springs.
“Dave said he wanted to have it in his neighbor’s barn. I thought he was kidding,” Sims said.
That first event, in 2015, was organized in less than one week and tickets went on sale the day of the event, Sims said.
This year was organized with slightly more time — but not much. Water and alcohol ran out early both nights, the bathroom conditions were less than ideal and the online ticketing system had some glitches. Specifically, an attempt to offer tickets to locals by asking them to sign up for a promotional code for online ordering was thwarted when the code was leaked. Both shows sold out in less than 15 minutes, leaving many disappointed.
But a batch of tickets was made available on Monday for the locals who signed up for the code. And although some expressed frustration for the challenges, others were grateful that this year there was an attempt to show preference to locals.
Overall, some 200 tickets were set aside for village residents, about 20 percent of the total, according to Sims.
One aspect of the Juke Joint many may not be aware of is that ticket revenue doesn’t even pay all of the event’s expenses, nor are the artists paid for their performances, according to Sims. While organizers aim to break even, some events have operated at a loss, Sims said. The next stop on the continuing Juke Joint series is Mississippi, in the region where the juke joint had its genesis.
Several local groups participated in Juke Joint. The Tecumseh Land Trust reaped the proceeds from alcohol sales — along with a barn rental fee that is passed on to them. Local food trucks were offered a coveted food vending slot. Wildflower Boutique was the exclusive merchandise provider. And Yellow Springs Brewery got first dibs on beer taps.
“They want to support Yellow Springs as much as they can,” said Herzog, who works at Yellow Springs Brewery, of Juke Joint organizers.
On stage for the bulk of the evening, Chappelle hosted and orchestrated the event with Yonnet, sang quite a few songs himself, and a few times addressed the audience and specifically the locals in attendance. He spoke of the recent suicides in the village, asking people to reach out to support one another, cursed opioids and ended the final evening with a plea: “Forgive yourself.”
Several of those interviewed said the Juke Joint had additional meaning because of recent village controversies and tragedies.
“The positive energy was so infectious — and with so much recent sadness in our little town, it felt wonderful just to have FUN,” wrote Anderson.
Kuder added, in reference to the recent divisive levy vote: “It’s beautiful how the timing worked. It’s such a divided, messy time in the village. I think this was a unifying event.”
For Malbroux, who is originally from Louisiana and has frequented juke joints in the South, Chappelle’s version hit the mark.
“For me, it felt like being right at home,” Malbroux said. “They got it so right.”
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